Frederick Douglass Turns 200. His Words and Resistance Remain Timeless.
Today we honor the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass, a world-renowned abolitionist and steadfast supporter of human rights. Douglass was enslaved from birth, but escaped at the age of 20. His exact birthday is unknown as there were often no records kept for slaves.
I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.…A want of information concerning my own age was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.
— Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1879
Douglass chose February 14 to celebrate his birth.
He lived his life in a relentless pursuit of justice, made only greater by the tremendous obstacles and violence he had to overcome. Though it was illegal for a slave to read or be taught, Douglass learned to read and became one of the greatest orators this country has ever seen. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which he wrote, exposed the grave injustice of slavery. That book and his subsequent work and writings also disproved the lies about the intelligence of slaves and all Black people.
Douglass grew into one of the preeminent leaders of the suffrage and abolitionist movements alongside people like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Wendell Phillips, and Lucretia Mott. In the face of a system built to exploit and deny him human rights, Frederick Douglass became an educator, a preacher, an agitator, a writer, a newspaper publisher, and a statesman who used his platform to demand radical reform and condemn the racial injustice that ravages the United States. He advocated for women, immigrants, Native Americans, as well as Black people.
ACLU Staff Reads Frederick Douglass
In honor of his life and the movements he helped lead, we have asked members of our staff to read passages from Frederick Douglass’s work and reflect on the meaning of his words.
Abdi Soltani, Executive Director
Abre’ Conner, Staff Attorney
William Freeman, Senior Staff Attorney
Yoel Haile, Criminal Justice Associate
On the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth, we are still fighting for the values to which he devoted his life. His words, spoken over a century ago, give a hauntingly accurate portrait of America today.
Few evils are less accessible to the force of reason, or more tenacious of life and power, than a long-standing prejudice. Of all the races and varieties of men which have suffered from this feeling, the colored people of this country have endured most….In nearly every department of American life they are confronted by this insidious influence. It fills the air. It meets them at the workshop and factory, when they apply for work. It meets them at the church, at the hotel, at the ballot-box, and worst of all, it meets them in the jury-box….Everything against the person with the hated color is promptly taken for granted; while everything in his favor is received with suspicion and doubt.
- The Color Line, 1881
One of Douglass’s most powerful speeches was delivered at an event commemorating American Independence. It was July 5, 1852, in Rochester, NY, and Douglass was asked to give the keynote address. He questioned why he was chosen for the task and then delivered a searing speech denouncing the holiday as a hypocritical celebration of ideals that were denied to Black citizens.
A turning point in Douglass’s writing and life’s work was the development of his ideas about the United States Constitution. Douglass was a longtime follower of the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, who believed that the Constitution protected slavery. But as Douglass began to see slavery as inconsistent with both the ideals and letter of the Constitution, he broke from Garrison. He then devoted himself to putting the Constitution and the laws of the United States on the side of freedom.
The law on the side of freedom is of great advantage only when there is power to make that law respected.
— Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881
Douglass’s life and work continue to illustrate the struggle of being Black in America. At the same time, his knowledge and resistance to oppression gives us hope that there are pathways to freedom. As Douglass famously proclaimed, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
It’s all of our responsibility to continue Frederick Douglass’s legacy by speaking truth to power and fighting for racial justice in the courts, the legislature, the ballot box, and the streets.